Wild

Kevin Fiala Will Get His Chance To Be The Guy

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

For the last calendar year, Kevin Fiala‘s been under the shadow of Kirill Kaprizov. Dolla Bill Kirill took the league by storm and slowly, unintentionally, started pushing Fiala out of the picture.

Kaprizov got the best linemates while Fiala skated with misfits in Marcus Johansson and Freddy Gaudreau. Kaprizov cashed in with a five-year contract, while Fiala had to fight tooth-and-nail for a 1-year, $5 million deal. It’s clear Kaprizov is in the Minnesota Wild’s future plans. Conversely, Fiala’s future with Minnesota is murky, at best.

It’s not fun for Fiala, but anyone can at least see why Minnesota would value Kaprizov over him. Kaprizov showed he was a rare offensive talent as a rookie, easily capturing the Calder Trophy. With 40 points in 32 games, his second year is anything but a sophomore slump.

Meanwhile, Fiala entered a “prove-it” year with ample chances, an improved all-around game, and no luck at all. Despite generating three-and-a-half shots per game (87 total) through his first 25 games, he had just three goals to show for it. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t supplant Kaprizov as The Guy.

But there was a time where he looked like The Guy. At the tail end of the 2019-20 season, Fiala famously broke out with 14 goals and 26 points in his final 18 games before March 2020’s COVID shutdown.

Back then, Minnesota’s offense ran through Fiala. He ripped over four shots a night during that streak while serving as the power play’s focal point. Once Dean Evason took over as head coach, Fiala’s ice time swelled to 18 minutes a night. Those kinds of opportunities vanished with Kaprizov’s arrival.

Now Fiala has the chance to be The Guy again, at least for a little while. Kaprizov left the ice Thursday night after Trent Frederic‘s boarding penalty. The extent of his injury is unknown at the moment, but it’ll at least take Kaprizov out of tonight’s game against the Washington Capitals. Minnesota has a help-wanted sign for a star winger until he gets back.

Nothing is standing in Fiala’s way to claim that spot temporarily. He logged 22 minutes Thursday, including almost seven minutes of power-play time. Suddenly, the player saddled with Gaudreau, and Victor Rask got to skate with Mats Zuccarello and Ryan Hartman.

That’s just the kind of assignment that could keep Fiala’s recent turnaround going. Fiala has seven points in his past seven games, including four goals. He’s still got a long way to go to make up for his awful luck early this year — he’s shooting 6.7%, and his 10.3 expected goals suggest he should have at least three more goals. It’s a start, though, and every Wild fan knows Fiala can go on a streak at any time.

People could’ve seen Fiala’s luck turning around. Nervous fans could’ve guessed Kaprizov would join nearly every major player on the injury list. But something’s happening for Fiala that absolutely no one could see coming. Evason is showing some trust in him.

A rash of injuries plays a part in this, but Fiala’s minutes are up over 18 a night in his last seven games. Over the previous three, he’s averaging 20:29, with no overtime to create extra opportunities. The coach who Fiala frequently drives mad is now trusting him alongside players like Joel Eriksson Ek, Marcus Foligno, and Marco Rossi.

Evason rarely calls out individual players for either good or bad reasons. Though, he will often make an exception for Fiala and is willing to throw thinly-veiled shade towards him in press conferences. However, Evason summoned genuine, unqualified praise for the Swiss game-breaker this week.

“We love Kevin’s work ethic the last little while,” Evason told the media. “He’s just worked his butt off.”

More than anything else, that’s the most significant indicator of a big second-half for Fiala. Finally getting out of Evason’s doghouse will lead to more minutes in better situations for the rest of the season.

The way things are going, Fiala shouldn’t have to worry about linemate problems anytime soon. Even if Kaprizov returns soon and bumps him off the Zuccarello line, Evason has options to set Fiala up for success.

Once healthy, Eriksson Ek could reunite with Foligno and Fiala. That may seem blasphemous to those who believe the Greenway-Eriksson Ek-Foligno line to be the Wild’s biggest weapon. But pairing the latter two forwards with Fiala creates arguably the more effective line.

They’ve controlled over 60% of the expected goals share at 5-on-5, by far the most of any Wild line with 30-plus minutes. The trio holds a 6-5 advantage in actual goals, a major accomplishment, considering the brutal .862 goaltending behind them.

Fiala shouldn’t worry even if Kaprizov returns and Greenway rejoins with Eriksson Ek and Foligno. The promotions of Rossi and Matt Boldy means Fiala could join the super-skilled rookies. Were you drooling when the stud prospects were zipping tape-to-tape passes last night? Double that for Fiala. He has been on the receiving end of zero of those types of passes all season.

Will that be enough to keep Fiala in Minnesota long-term? That future’s still very much in doubt. The Wild’s cap situation is still untenable for the next three years. Fiala will require a raise, which ties up their precious and limited cap space. The Wild also have prospects like Boldy, Adam Beckman, and Alexander Khovanov to backfill with.

In the meantime, though, there’s a big opportunity in front of him. He has another chance to show what an offense run through him can do. If he gets on another of his signature hot streaks, he can propel the Wild to winning and earn a ton more money for himself in the process.

Who knows? He might even earn a chance to be The Guy full-time somewhere else.

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